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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not for Ourselves

Forgiveness of others who have wronged us – however awful we believe the wrong to be – is commanded of us by the Lord to whom we belong, whose forgiveness claims and saves us, whose authority is over us in all things.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 24, year A; texts: Romans 14:1-12 (13-19 added); Matthew 18:21-35; Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 107:1-13

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are some extravagant numbers being thrown around in our Gospel today. In today’s dollars, the first slave was forgiven a debt of roughly $3 billion. He then threw his fellow slave in jail for a debt of a little under $8,000. 3 billion. 8 thousand. Jesus has crafted a parable which is so ludicrous in scope and reality – what ruler would loan $3 billion to a slave in the first place, and what ruler would then forgive such a debt without any further demands – that it effectively makes any counter arguments impossible. Should anyone come up with a sin which seems impossible to forgive, they would still run up against Jesus’ dramatically overstated figures and fall short.

Here are some other extravagant numbers to consider that have the unfortunate problem of being real. Estimated dollars spent by Al Qaeda in planning and executing the attack on the United States ten years ago: half a million dollars. Amount spent by the United States to punish those responsible, including some estimated dollars for future continuing of the war begun in 2003: about $3.3 trillion. [1] Which incidentally is about a fifth of our current national debt. Some more numbers to consider: in retaliation for the brutal murder of 2,977 people in the airplane attacks of that day, the United States began a war in a country which had nothing to do with the attacks, and the current death toll of Iraqi civilians is at least over 110,000 – some studies argue a far larger number. This doesn’t even take into account the brave men and women who’ve been sent away from their families for years at a time to fight these wars, the nearly 5,000 of them who have been killed, and the tens of thousands who have suffered the trauma and mental anguish of years of war.

This is a hard day to handle as Christians, isn’t it? I’m grateful for our readings assigned to today, because they’re helping me process what we need to consider as we move forward as Christians who are also American citizens. Because there is nothing we can say about our people and our nation on that day that is not honorable and worthy of recall. The indescribable horror in which people acted again and again with immeasurable bravery, the tragic loss of so many good people, the powerful sense of community which was created across our country – we remember the events of that day with pride, with sadness, with incredible gratitude for those who gave their lives willingly and those whose lives were taken from them without any choice.

But when we look at what we have done in the past ten years, it’s hard to comprehend. Are 3,000 American lives [2] really worth 110,000 Iraqi lives? To say nothing of Afghan civilians. How many scenes like 9-11 have been experienced in villages and cities across those two countries in the past ten years, brave people risking lives and rushing in to save others while their cities burn and they mourn their losses? And was there nothing we could have done with that $3.3 trillion in the past ten years that would have created jobs, educated children, built affordable housing, bolstered the economy? In the face of Jesus’ parable how can we sit by and ignore the questions that must be asked: was our wanton spending and even more wanton war-making necessary in response? Was it moral? Can it be condoned by followers of Jesus? Was there really no other way? And even if our country had chosen that way, why were we in this room and in churches across the country, Christians all, willing to let it pass? To hold up the flag as the standard for our behavior instead of the cross?

I’m coming to believe that we who believe in Christ are guilty of the sin of omission here. We have not spoken out enough a word of peace and reconciliation in this case. We too often have let the images of that day drive us to blind support and unquestioning acceptance of any amount of spending, any amount of death, and too often we have said nothing. All this we can and must confess.

But we have today to live. And God willing, tomorrow. And God’s word today once more calls us to live differently. We can and will confess our sin. But the real issue for God is: what will we do now? How will we now live? And for that we return to a basic understanding of Christians which we have lost in our love of our independence. We have it from Paul today: we are not our own authority, for we belong to a Lord who claims our lives.

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,” Paul says. (v. 7) We are the Lord’s.

This passage is often read at funerals, and it’s powerfully helpful. To know that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to Christ, that is good news. I can see why it is often chosen.

But did you notice the context? It originally had nothing to do with the time of funerals. Paul’s talking about how we live with each other, and even with non-believers. He describes a way of living which sets aside our own needs for the sake of others. Which recognizes above all that we are not the center of the universe, or even of our own lives. To paraphrase what children often say, “We’re not the boss of us.”

There’s a claim here – we do not belong to ourselves. Baptized into Christ, we are claimed by God. We belong to God. And so Paul, Jesus, and many of the New Testament writers consistently use the word “slave” or “servant” to describe our relationship to God. We don’t have the freedom to act however we will. We do have free will, but we have set that aside in obedience to the God who saves us.

We have a Lord. Who is in charge. Whose will is ours to obey. And in our independent nation, where people feel free to say “be what you want to be” and “do what you want to do,” we say that isn’t so. We say that our will is bound to the God who loves us, who died for us, who forgives us, and who makes us new.

So even, as in Paul’s several scenarios, we might think we are right and others wrong, we do not do anything which might trample on the other. As Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.” (v. 4) They, too, belong to God, not to us, he says. And maybe he’s even suggesting here that this is true for those who are not believers in Christ.

So we stand in relationship to others – in our community and outside, in our nation and outside – as people who don’t just get to do what we want to do because we are concerned about the other. Because our Lord is concerned about the other.

“Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died,” Paul says. (v. 15) Or, we might add, what you think. Or what you believe. Michael Garvey, a theologian who taught at Notre Dame, once put it this way: “Whether or not you are among ‘those who in principle oppose the use of military force,’ if you believe that Jesus is Who He says He is, you know that it is impossible to kill without killing a specific person whom Jesus loves enough to die for.” [3] Whether we are contemplating forgiving a sin of a brother or sister in our own community, or the grievous sins of terrorists against our own country, it matters not. All people are people whom Christ loved enough to die for. That’s central to our proclamation.

We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

This is also central to all our readings and their exploration of forgiveness and retribution today.

Joseph’s brothers admit what they did was a “crime” – they don’t softsoap. But they hope they will be forgiven. You can argue that they’re only being self-serving here and not honest. Joseph has all the power, and the food, after all. But Joseph understands that it is not his call. Yes, they abducted him, faked his murder, sold him into slavery, leaving him for dead. But Joseph says, “Am I God?” I don’t get to make this call. And he promises to take care of them and their families.

And we’ve already heard from Paul, but listen to another thing he says: “Who are you to pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he says. “We all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (v. 10) So all are under God’s rule, God’s authority. As are we. So we don’t have the authority to do retribution or judgment on others. Or even withhold forgiveness.

And in Jesus’ parable, the fellow slaves of the unforgiving one recognize that their lord’s grace has been offended against. They know this is bigger than themselves, because they all are under the same lord. So they take their concerns about their fellow slave to the one in authority, whose will truly matters. They know that their lord is in charge, and he must deal with this person, not they.

So fundamentally, this is our question: whom do we serve, ourselves or God?

Because if we truly belong to the God who faced the cross rather than use force against sinners, we are commanded to do the same. If we truly claim the forgiveness of the Risen Jesus we are claimed and commanded to be able to forgive even those who kill us, as Jesus did.

We can’t take up obedience to the Triune God and put it off when it’s inconvenient. We can’t claim salvation by the way of the cross and either openly or silently support destruction of others by the way of the sword. At some point, we have to know: is our loyalty to ourselves ultimately, or some vague national patriotism, or local parochialism, or family pride? Or is it to our Lord and Savior by whose blood we live?

And if we admit we belong to God, then Jesus’ point is for us: if we are going to trust God for our own forgiveness, we cannot withhold forgiveness from others. How can we declare again and again about the events of a decade ago, “Never forget” and then sing with joy in our psalm today this prayer of thanks to God: “You will not always accuse us, nor keep your anger forever.” (v. 9)

How can we demand that others pay for what they have done when we sang in the same psalm this wonder of God: “You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us according to our iniquities.” (v. 10) The servants in Jesus’ parable understand this is impossible. We simply cannot avoid this reality: we have been forgiven everything. Our forgiving Lord commands us to do the same.

Frankly, it’s hard to argue that doing it our way makes us any more secure. Our world is in worse shape now than it was then. Our economy is near collapse, and no one would claim that terrorism has been eliminated. We’ve spent trillions, killed hundreds of thousands, and we’re still afraid and unsafe and vulnerable. So even if God’s claim on us in Baptism isn’t enough to cause us to change how we are, surely practical reason would suggest the way of peace might be tried?

And notice – there is nothing in any of these readings which doesn’t take seriously the actions in need of forgiveness. It’s just that they say we are to forgive. No one demands that the events of 9-11 be diminished or considered as nothing. If anything, their severity is what we need to take seriously, because we are called to forgive all things, not just little things.

And we are called to confess our own sins, and those of our nation, which by any reckoning are far greater than anything done to us. And then hope that we can be forgiven.

Jesus believes the world can be changed by such forgiveness. He died to prove this. Brothers can be reconciled. Slaves can be freed. Lost can be found. And even the world can be healed. In the end, it’s the only thing that will heal the world. Not power and violence, not retribution and vengeance, and certainly not battleships made from the steel of the destroyed towers.

Peter thought he had the perfect answer to Jesus’ call to forgiveness.

He offered seven as the amount – if someone sins the same sin against me seven times, and I forgive them seven times, is that enough? Seven is the complete, perfect number biblically, the holy number. And Jesus’ response: how about holiness beyond holiness, completion times completion? How about unlimited forgiveness and reconciliation?

After all, Jesus says, that’s what I’ve offered you. That’s what gives you life. Now I need you to do the same.

And friends, this isn’t our call. We have a Lord and Savior. And he’s given us a command. Now may he give us the grace and strength to do it, and to live it with our lives. May he give us the courage to speak out in the public square even if it means others criticize, so that we can call our nation to live up to its highest ideals. But even more so that we ourselves can live up to the calling our risen and forgiving Lord gives us.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

[1] The New York Times,, 09-08-11.
[2] Actually, not all were Americans. There were 372 citizens of other countries among the 2,977 killed, or about 12%. The point is the same.
[3] Michael Garvey, Notre Dame University, courtesy of Richard Cross, quoted in “Slowly Waking to Justice,” by Kristen Johnson Ingram, Weavings XVII:6 November/December 2002, p. 21.

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